The Write Words – Spelling Dilemma

The words cough, enough, borough, nought, plough, through, thorough, bough, dough, plough and countless others are often brought into play when people comment about how ludicrous spelling “lessons” are – when the pronunciation of words is such an apparently hit-and-miss affair. According to educators, however, the problem lies with the spellings themselves – students cannot be bothered to riffle through a dictionary in order to find the correct spelling for the words they want to use, and the result is often a jumble of language more suitable to txt msg and phonetics, rather than “proper” English.

The flood of spelling mistakes extant in many examination papers, and in the comments left after articles in this online version of this newspaper, moreover, makes it clear that it is not just carelessness and an itch to get back to one’s games console, which are the cause of bad spellings. Rather, it is the very fact that today’s children and adults not only do not know how to spell – but they probably cannot be bothered to learn how to do it… because there are more important things in life.

Dr Ken Smith, senior lecturer in criminology at Buckinghamshire New University, is all but advocating a free-for-all when it comes to spelling words that are “usually” spelled badly – on the lines that “content is king” and that the misspelled words are understandable anyway.

Writing in the Times Higher Education magazine, he recently insisted that there must be some leeway given to the students, with some being the operative word. Think of it a variant of standard spelling, he says, as a plea for what could only be construed as an amnesty to all those who cheerfully ignore the red lines of the spell-check facility. However, before students could draw a collective sigh of relief, Dr Smith decided to draw his own arbitrary line somewhere.

This he does at the twenty-first word that follows the twenty that are most often written badly. He would only allow a handful of words to have incorrect spellings: Argument; February; foreign; ignore; leisure; misspelt (of course!); neighbour; occurred; opportunity (obviously); queue (in three variants – que, cue and kew!); seize; speech; their (as thier or there); truly; twelfth (what about eighth?); Wednesday and weird (perhaps inevitably). Any other spelling mistakes would be penalised according to the praxis obtaining with any particular Board of Examiners. This does not make sense.

Why a cut-off line at all? Why not a free-for-all? Why not do away with the “u” in words such as harbour, to bring British spelling in line with the American style, seeing that most people do not pronounce the “u” anyway? What about Simplified Spelling?

Hot on the heels of this argument comes a report about the spelling blunders committed by British university students. Moreover, it was not only bad spellings that were highlighted in newspaper reports – there was also the tiny matter of invented words, and wrong words or expressions, used because the students simply did not know which the correct word to use might have been.

As an aside, it must be noted that Jack Bovill, chairman of the Spelling Society, said its national survey had shown up to 54 per cent of people couldn’t spell words such as embarrassed, separate, accommodation, millennium and friend. So, if push comes to shove, why not allow people to get away with using “energy” instead of “allergy” and “high fever” instead of “hay fever”? Why not breed “escape goats”?

Gaffes listed in a report from Bath Spa University and City University in London include gems such as laxative enforcement policies, an unpresidented response, in case an academic breaks out, whom used instead of womb and abominous instead of abdominal – in an anatomy paper. Given that the advent of instant messaging has already wrought havoc with the spelling of even the simplest words, the last thing we need is “permission” to spell less straightforward ones badly. Were wood it and, eve this where aloud?


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